OpinionIran in the World PressLebanon is the sideshow to Iran’s sinister moves on...

Lebanon is the sideshow to Iran’s sinister moves on Iraq


Sunday Times: While the world remains understandably transfixed on Lebanon and Israel, one fact bears keeping in mind: more people were killed in Iraq in the past two weeks than in Israel and Lebanon combined. The Sunday Times


Andrew Sullivan

While the world remains understandably transfixed on Lebanon and Israel, one fact bears keeping in mind: more people were killed in Iraq in the past two weeks than in Israel and Lebanon combined.

At their joint press conference on Friday, both Tony Blair and George W Bush mentioned Iraq but they understandably avoided the connection. One crisis at a time is the strategy — and Blair is now, willy-nilly, the bewildered president’s closest ally and indispensable bridge to the international community. But if the war in Lebanon was begun by an Islamist Shi’ite militia, the war in Iraq is increasingly being waged by a clone of the same. It is in some ways the same war: a resurgent Shi’ite terror machine bent on the destruction of Israel. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s guru, putting aside his enmity towards the Shi’ites for the sake of a joint war on Israel, said as much last week.

“It is an advantage that Iraq is near Palestine,” he declared. “Muslims should support its holy warriors until an Islamic emirate dedicated to jihad is established there, which could then transfer the jihad to the borders of Palestine.” No wonder Blair and Bush want to change the subject.

The numbers tell the story: 2,669 Iraqis lost their lives to violence in May. In June the number jumped to 3,149. Almost all the deaths were deliberate targeting of civilians. The attempt after the death of insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to assert the Maliki government’s control of Baghdad — a police and military offensive in the capital — has been revealed as a failure within a few weeks. Days before meeting Blair, even Bush conceded in a meeting with Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s nominal prime minister, that the security situation in Baghdad was “terrible”.

In many ways the biggest story of the past fortnight may, in other words, have been missed. It was not the moment that Israel used “disproportionate” force; it was the moment when the West’s inadequate force in Iraq was revealed as finally, irredeemably, insufficient to the task.

Don’t rely on me. Ask William Buckley, the father of American conservatism, an intellectual pioneer who almost singlehandedly created the conservative movement that gave us the presidencies of Reagan, Bush and Bush. “I think Mr Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology,” Buckley told CBS last week, “with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending . . . and in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge.” Buckley has described the Iraq venture as failed, adding to the conservative chorus of dismay at Bush.

The US military, in response to what can only be called anarchy, announced a new deployment of US troops to the capital city. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, described this latest manoeuvre as “phase 2” of the previous effort to stabilise Baghdad. The only problem, as other Bush officials conceded to The New York Times off the record, is that there was never a phase 2 in the original plan. “This is more like plan B,” anonymous colleagues explained.

“Six weeks ago we were talking about pulling American troops back from the city streets, not putting more of them out there.”

Does the new strategy offer some hope? We’ll see. And we can pray. But it is hardly encouraging that the new troops in Baghdad are to be taken from increasingly war-torn Anbar province, giving the Sunni insurgents another chance to replenish and regroup. Whatever the president says, in other words, there is no real commitment to winning in Iraq any more. If there were, tens of thousands of extra troops would have been deployed months, if not years, ago.

Today the security situation is so dire that some experts argue that half a million troops would be needed to wrest control of the situation. That won’t happen. If it had been done at the beginning, as so many military commanders argued for, we might be facing a whole new and far more hopeful scenario.

But we’re not. So some are thinking through forms of military withdrawal or redeployment, leaving the Sunni-Shi’ite Iraqi civil war to intensify (just as it flares anew elsewhere in the region). Getting the American public to send its boys to police an internal Muslim civil war, inflamed still further by Hezbollah, is simply unsellable. Peter Galbraith, a former Clinton official and supporter of the war against Saddam Hussein, last week suggested shifting US forces back into Kurdistan, where the intervention remains a success and where US forces could keep a close eye to make sure that Al-Qaeda does not regroup in Sunni Iraq.

In a telling moment, David “axis of evil” Frum, the former Bush speech-writer, seconded the idea as one of the least worst options now available. It’s not far off an idea made a while back by Joe Biden, the Democratic senator.

When you listen to the forces in the field, you can see why it may be the best bet. One military official e-mailed his own assessment last week and it comports with many other military e-mails I’ve read recently from soldiers fighting a war that they were never given the manpower to win.

“This is the dark side of the big shift in the US strategy/presence over the last year,” he wrote. “As we’ve reduced our forces and disengaged from the cities, we have lost the ability to impose our will on the streets of Iraq. At this point I don’t know how effective US forces can/will be in imposing order. We just don’t have the combat power, nor the presence in the city, nor the right mix of constabulary and civil affairs units. It’s frustrating.”

What is Donald Rumsfeld’s response? Here’s what he said last week when asked if Iraq was in a civil war: “Oh, I don’t know. You know I thought about that last night and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our civil war, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different. There is — there is a good deal of violence in Baghdad and two or three other provinces, and yet in 14 other provinces there’s very little violence or numbers of incidents . . . It clearly is being stimulated by people who would like to have what could be characterised as a civil war and win it, but I’m not going to be the one to decide if, when or at all.”

“Just musing.” Could he get any glibber? His detachment from his own responsibility — and from reality — seems as complete now as it has been from the beginning. He seems unaware, for example, that Bayan Jabr, Iraq’s new finance minister and former interior minister, has been linked to Shi’ite death squads, which torture and murder Sunnis at will and are gradually being integrated into Iraq’s “national” army. The possibility of a Shi’ite Saddam emerging from chaos, allied with Iran, supportive of Hezbollah, does not seem to have entered Rumsfeld’s consciousness.

But it has entered others’. The Saudi Arabian elites are rattled. All the Sunni powers are unnerved. The Hezbollah provocation, sponsored and armed by Iran, is dangerous in itself. Combined with the developments in Iraq, it presages a real and new shift in power. If Tehran gains a Shi’ite mini-state with vast oil reserves in Iraq, if its nuclear programme continues unchecked, if its proxy fighters in Lebanon continue to show the tenacity and barbaric targeting of civilians that they have demonstrated so far, we have the makings of a war in the Middle East with Iran as the central player, vowing to rival Al-Qaeda as the spearhead of the new caliphate.

The Israelis are aware of this because their survival depends on it. Their elimination as a people and a nation is a central tenet of Hezbollah’s and Tehran’s ideology. That is why their response in Lebanon, however awful the collateral civilian deaths and injuries, and however unsettling to the region, is rational from their point of view. It is disproportionate only if you ignore the existential threat that they increasingly face.

In an irony of history, Bush’s bungled, unserious Iraq occupation has given the Shi’ite Islamists an opportunity. In southern Lebanon they have opened a polarising second front. In southern Iraq they are gaining a new and potentially deadly base of operations. From that base, their true intentions will shortly become clearer. And the future darker.

Simon Jenkins is away

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